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Working with the government to deliver the Covid-19 economic stimulus package has forced the opposition to consider a change of tactics. By Karen Middleton.

Opposition tactics in a pandemic

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese.
Credit: SAM MOOY / GETTY IMAGES

In trying to find its political place in the landscape of a global pandemic, federal Labor has taken a lesson from tax.

Public backlash against its decision to oppose top-end cuts last year, while still backing them in parliament, is guiding the party’s positioning on the economic response to coronavirus.

“We were subject to substantial criticism for not opposing the package, even though we had made it very clear that we were in favour of stage one and stage two but not stage three,” Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese now says of the tax debate.

“I think the lesson there is to explain very clearly what our argument is and what we would do, so it’s not seen as a change in position. And that’s what we did last week in the parliament.”

The twin health and economic crises now facing Australia are reinforcing the value of bipartisanship in an emergency. But they also raise questions about the extent to which the same co-operation can undermine the accountability a fully functioning democracy demands.

For Labor, the challenge is how to walk the line of support and opposition, while also trying to remain relevant at a time when national unity and government leadership dominate everything.

Albanese says the tax debate experience served as a guide ahead of last week’s parliamentary sitting to authorise the government’s $130 billion wage subsidy scheme, a scheme Labor still believes should be improved.

When parliament held its one-day, pared-down sitting on April 8 to pass legislation authorising the government’s subsidy package, the opposition backed the bill. Albanese says that “no one in Labor was arguing we should hold up this legislation because it was legislation that we were effectively the author of, along with the ACTU and the business community”.

That morning, he and his senior colleagues undertook a media blitz to telegraph their intentions.

In parliament, they proposed some early-stage amendments pushing to include temporary visa holders and more casual workers, but when the government refused to accept them, they didn’t insist.

They also didn’t vote for similar minor-party amendments in the senate.

This was in contrast with the position Labor took at the previous one-day sitting, in which the rebranded JobSeeker payment was doubled. Then, Labor warned the government that unless students were included among recipients, it would back minor-party amendments in the senate to add them, sending the bill back to the house of representatives, prolonging the sitting and leaving both sides facing an all-or-nothing stalemate.

In private talks, the opposition argued the government was going to have to include students at some point, so it might as well move now. The Coalition blinked and made the change.

Last week though, the outcome was different.

Albanese argues that was because the government steadfastly refused to add either temporary visa holders or excluded casuals to the subsidy scheme. Labor assessed it had the most to lose if it dug in and blocked the whole wage subsidy scheme.

He says public criticism of last week’s position has been minimal, far less intense than the tax debate. But there has been some.

In parliament, Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick blasted Labor.

“I did so because I want a strong opposition and, right now, I’m not seeing it,” Patrick tells The Saturday Paper.

He says he understands Labor has extra considerations as a party of government but insists it could have worked with the crossbench to demand more. “We could have twisted the government’s arm and got a better solution,” he says.

Patrick argues the opposition’s upfront promise to pass the bill, regardless, was defeatist. “They didn’t just blink – they shut their eyes,” he says. “And they shut their eyes right at the very start of the staring competition.”

Albanese accuses crossbench critics of “gesture politics”.

“Potentially a million Australians would’ve lost their job in the aftermath of that,” he says of any move to block the bill.

“If you’re serious, if you are a party of government, you can’t afford to engage in gesture politics, without being cognisant of what the consequences of making those gestures would be. In this case it would be cataclysmic for working people and for our national economy.”

Positioning against aspects of dramatic government decisions without opposing them outright is a tricky manoeuvre, especially as conventional wisdom suggests people get behind their government in this kind of crisis.

“Often in politics you want your political opponent to fail,” says The Australia Institute’s Ben Oquist. “But even opponents of the prime minister, or people who didn’t vote for him, are likely to be willing him to succeed and in that environment. It’s not a time for an opposition to seek to tear down a prime minister. It just won’t work politically. They need to be playing a longer, more strategic game.”

Principal social researcher at Vox Populi Research Rebecca Huntley says the 2008 global financial crisis could be instructive to Labor in this moment.

In the lead-up to the crisis, her research detected a creeping criticism of then prime minister Kevin Rudd – that he was unfocused and too frantic. When the crisis struck, that criticism evaporated.

But as the panic subsided, Australians felt they had avoided the worst of what had befallen other countries and reverted to their previous mindset. “The electorate snapped back very quickly almost to the same questions and critique of the government as if the GFC had not been that much of a big deal,” Huntley says.

Labor’s success in keeping Australia out of recession created a kind of complacency about what was dodged. It got no credit because people took the view that rescuing the economy was the government’s basic job.

“What it did show me is that you can go from people’s real full panic about a crisis and a desire for a consensus to very quickly … wanting particularly the opposition to ask some really searching questions about why the money is being spent, who is benefiting from this massive influx of money, this massive stimulus,” Huntley says.

Albanese agrees.

“That analysis is consistent with my experience,” he says, adding that Labor didn’t help itself by removing Rudd as prime minister and undermining its ability to trumpet economic triumph.

Whether Labor could have overcome the snapback in sentiment, he says, is impossible to know.

Huntley cautions that this crisis is different, involving a health emergency with punishing restrictions and a more dramatic hit to the economy. But she still thinks it serves as a warning for both government and opposition.

It suggests people will expect both major parties to fulfil their traditional roles as soon as they think the crisis is passing. Huntley detects that sentiment is already rising, and says a canny opposition would be ramping up its critical questioning.

“About now I’d be taking off the velvet gloves … I’d be getting ready to start to poke and prod the government on the use of this kind of money,” she says.

That shift appears to have begun. In allowing the JobKeeper legislation to pass unamended, Labor wants the onus for any holes in the subsidy scheme wholly on the government.

“When unemployment spikes in this country in the next few months, everyone should remember that Josh Frydenberg currently has the power to prevent many of those job losses with the stroke of a pen,” shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers proclaimed this week.

Labor joined senate crossbenchers in establishing a special senate committee, dominated by non-government members, to scrutinise the Covid-19 spending.

“We’ll continue to argue for parliament to meet and we’ll continue to argue for the wage subsidies to be extended to casuals and other workers who missed out,” Albanese says.

“The figures … from the IMF showing a substantial contraction in the Australian economy should give a reason why the government changes its mind.”

But he is not willing to change his own mind on a controversial policy some are calling for Labor to restore, in light of what is now an enormous national debt for future governments to repay: the abolition of franking credits on shares.

After the public comprehensively rejected the plan at the election, Labor dumped the policy. And Albanese is refusing to revisit it.

“We’ve said we won’t take the same policy on franking credits to the election and that won’t change. But quite clearly there will be a need to look at a whole range of policy responses and we will need to continue to provide support for the most vulnerable in our community.”

He says national economic, social and environmental policy will all need rethinking. The opposition is also gearing up to highlight the parallels between the pandemic and climate change.

“One of the arguments put forward by the government over this expenditure is that you needed to look at what the costs of inaction are, as well as the costs of action,” Albanese says, adding that the other argument is to “listen to the science”.

“Now, those two principles could apply to an issue like climate change, which is obviously a major challenge not just for the country but for the world.”

Ben Oquist also sees opportunity in drawing a link with climate change. He hopes the abandonment of entrenched ideological positions through the crisis might herald a shift in thinking.

“If we can get out of barracking just for a tribe or a side and focus on ideas and policies, then that leads to better outcomes overall,” he says.

For all the furious agreement on wage subsidies, though, it’s unlikely the Coalition or Labor will be prepared to go quite that far.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 18, 2020 as "Walking the line".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.